The number of paper-based customer magazines being launched by IT companies is growing fast with apparently little danger of them being replaced by electronic communications and so-called ?e-zines?. People still prefer to read a magazine, flick through it from the back and keep a copy on their shelves. And paper-based customer magazines remain the best way to reach prospects, improve relationships with existing customers and enhance the brand of the company.
The trick is to produce something which people want to keep and not throw into the bin without even opening the wrapper. As Bob Dearsley, one-time sales and marketing manager with a reseller business, and now a marketing consultant, says: ?Too many companies waste money producing something with all the style and content of a Neighbourhood Watch newsletter.?
Significant resources are required to create something of value which will be read, and resellers are notoriously bad at allocating sufficient budget to create a worthwhile product. With one or two notable exceptions, the good ones invariably come from vendor organisations which have the budgets and skills to invest in content, design and production.
Certainly, it is easier for large companies to produce a user publication than for those with less than 50 employees. For most reseller organisations, the decision to produce a user magazine is a bold marketing step requiring commitment, and not many have pockets deep enough. Product vendors and manufacturers often say they are willing to contribute, if not cash then copy and skills. But when it comes down to it you are essentially on your own; producing a creditable magazine takes more than wishing and willing.
Dearsley says: ?Considerable value can be achieved from a well constructed, paper-based product which can be mailed in quantity and used as sales support collateral.? But, he adds, those responsible for producing the magazine should first put themselves in the shoes of the reader. ?You shouldn?t expect them to use their time reading something which is tedious, unappealing, flat, poorly written, bland and a conspicuous piece of flannel.?
You are competing for your customer?s time ? their so-called ?mindspace? ? with hundreds of suppliers, and if you want them to read your publication and think about your company, you have to offer quality and value. Dearsley points out that there are almost 200 publications in the IT press, before the company magazines are counted, plus the national daily and Sunday press. ?That is tough competition,? he says. ?And realistically you can?t expect many people to read your magazine, especially if you don?t work at it.?
The mailing list is crucial, adds Karen Harding, UK marketing manager with Attachmate. ?The internal database of customers and prospects is one of the most valuable assets of the business, but it needs to be continually cleaned and updated,? she says. Attachmate produces a glossy quarterly newspaper called Compass, aimed at decision makers, and Harding says that she gets very few magazines returned as undelivered and a respectable three per cent response rate to the faxback form in the newspaper, which she feels indicates that her mailing list is good. ?It doesn?t do the company any good if lots of issues are delivered to people who left a company years ago,? she declares.
The mailing list also ensures that, competitive as the area is for the reader?s attention, your magazine is likely to land on the desk of someone who is interested in reading it. They are probably already a customer, or they will have heard of you. With luck, they will believe they need to know more about you and will want to open the magazine. But, as Dearsley points out, once the magazine has been opened you only have a few moments to hold the reader?s attention. ?It must have style, and the copy has to be writ-ten in a professional way which makes them want to keep reading, otherwise it will quickly be despatched to the round filing cabinet on the floor.?
The well-produced user magazine will give an insight into your company, both in an obvious and a subtle way. It will indicate how much attention you give to detail, how much you think about the broader picture of solutions within an organisation and are not just focused on products, and it can indicate an intelligent approach to customers? problems. If it is not well done, it will just prove the opposite.
Chris Rees, business development manager with Cincom, agrees. ?A successful magazine is a fabulous device for successful account management.? Rees points out that many IT clients ?disappear? after an initial sale or once a project is finished, and a magazine is an excellent way of keeping in touch with them. ?It is good to show people that you are still in business and offering the sorts of solutions that they want.?
Luc Marin, director of marketing for Adobe, encourages resellers who are thinking about starting a customer magazine to talk to their suppliers? marketing departments. He says: ?There is no doubt that a customer magazine is a great way to build your company brand, but vendors, who are ultimately concerned with selling product, usually recognise that supporting their resellers? brand is a good indirect way to promote themselves. So you find that vendors will allow resellers to reuse copy or even republish magazines with the reseller?s company brand on it. We do joint mailings with resellers so their customers get our magazine, and resellers can have free reprints of articles as additional sales tools.?
Caroline Kuipers, European marketing manager of software house McAfee, points out that company magazines are a valuable source of information for users. She says: ?It is such a fast-moving world, with new products being launched and upgrades coming along all the time, that keeping up to date is really difficult, and user magazines fulfil a vital role in keeping user?s skills and knowledge updated.? Kuipers agrees that the Web can be another way to keep users updated, but says that for the time being magazines have the edge. ?Customers like a magazine,? she says, ?although that preference may change in the future.?
Hints and tips from ITPR
- Don?t rush into producing a customer magazine: think through what you want, ask professional advice on the time, cost and resources required, and listen to that advice.
- Have one person responsible for ensuring that all the copy is ready in time. Start thinking about it in plenty of time. If you ask people to write something they will always find something else to do first; getting copy can be a nightmare.
- Be prepared to pay professional journalists and designers ? the end results will show the difference.
- Ask all your suppliers how they can help. They may offer copy, photographs, advertising, help with mailing and distribution and so forth. At least co-operative marketing funding should be available for channelling into the project.
- Target the contents at your reader by asking yourself what they want to read about, not what the board would like to see.
- People remember photographs of people ? so use head and shoulders shots more than product shots.
- Put your customers in the publication, not your staff. They want to read about how successful you are at solving other companies? problems.
One of the best known company-produced magazines in the IT industry is probably RGB from Ideal Hardware. The marketing manager responsible for RGB (which stands for Red Green Blue, the basic colours used by monitor displays) is Alastair Laidlaw, who says that Ideal?s stock market success is due in part to the company focusing on its determination to regard information as the greatest asset and commodity that resellers can acquire.
He says: ?We do not impose any editorial restrictions and we use industry journalists who are widely respected. The result is a magazine which is about as far from a company-specific magazine as you can get. We are the ultimate added-value provider, supplying really independent information which is of true value.?
Laidlaw points out that in a recent issue of RGB there was a profile of Compaq. ?We not only don?t sell Compaq, but we are selling against it most of the time. It is a truly independent piece.? Such confidence is necessary, says Laidlaw, if you are going to be respected by readers. ?They can see through the hype and puff of magazines which are little more than PR exercises,? he says. ?Getting a reseller or customer to open and read a magazine is the challenge, and it is very competitive.?
RGB started life six years ago as Change magazine, a four-page photocopied newsletter for internal circulation only. It rapidly grew to eight pages, then 16, until it reached 160 pages of full colour. ?Then we realised that we had something that was of real value to our customers and resellers, so we cut out the internal information and focused on using Change, or RGB as it became, to deliver independent information as a value-added commodity to our customers,? says Laidlaw.
?Now we are about to relaunch Change, as well as RGB, to provide information which is Ideal-specific. You could say that everything has come a full circle.?
High production values are key to a successful magazine, believes Laidlaw, combined with unimpeachable journalism. ?We have a magazine which is part of our media profile, and acts as a lever for our Web pages and for our IT television network,? says Laidlaw.
The principle of fearless independent comment extends to the IT Network, which is not Ideal-centric and includes commentaries on Ideal?s competitors and products which Ideal does not stock. However, Laidlaw is sure that electronic communications will not replace traditional magazines for some time. ?Maybe when the current generation of schoolkids grows up, but at the moment we have managers who like to read and touch glossy magazines.?
Laidlaw believes that people want information about wider industry issues as well as product specifications and instruction. ?We are able to actively reduce the cost of sale for resellers, because we reduce the time that each sale takes, because we provide the information that reseller?s customers need. Our magazine is a very effective sales tool for resellers, and because of the high editorial and production values it is respected.?
Laidlaw adds: ?It does us nothing but good, and I would encourage resellers to consider producing a version for themselves. We would be happy to help whenever we could.?
My mate, Mygate
For Apple reseller and solution house Mygate, a customer magazine was the logical marketing step to maintain contact with its exploding number of customers. The company has been in business for five years and Nita Aujla, Mygate marketing manager, saw that the customer database was one of the company?s most valuable assets that was not being properly exploited.
She says: ?We realised we needed to do something to keep the company name in the minds of people who have bought from us in the past and help encourage them to remember us in the future when they wanted to upgrade or buy something new. We thought hard about whether to do a magazine and then produced an experimental issue this spring. We are very pleased with the results.?
Mygate?s first magazine, called System, is a high-quality 12-page publication, mainly describing new products and upgrades but with an editorial feature about software licensing. Aujla says: ?We have always produced a product newsletter but now we have replaced it with System which is more sophisticated. We use an outside design agency, but all the copy is written in-house.?
Mygate did not receive any help from Apple, apart from some routine co-operative marketing funding to help with the cost of production and distribution. But Aujla negotiated a contribution from Claris in return for advertising, and is considering approaching other enlightened vendors, many of which readily support such ventures.
Aujla is conscious that customer magazines are not ?real? magazines with truly independent editorial, but does not think that matters. ?We are not setting out to give product reviews and if we don?t think a product is any good we wouldn?t include it in the magazine. The function of System is to educate existing users about how to better use their current systems, advise them about new products and why they might want to buy them, and to help build the brand of the company.? She would not, however, include products from Mygate?s competitors in the name of journalism. ?System is a marketing exercise with the objective of increasing our sales,? she adds. ?There is no need for negative comments.?
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